Journalists Angry About Journalists Practicing Journalism

February 16th, 2011 by Andy in Deconstructing The Media

Glenn Greenwald provides this insightful deconstruction of the edifice of hypocrisy upon which sits much of what passes for journalism in the major corporate media today.

Rainey, Kurtz and Dickey all have this exactly backwards. Identifying lies told by powerful political leaders — and describing them as such — is what good journalists do, by definition. It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press. “Objectivity” does not require refraining from pointing out the falsity of government claims. The opposite is true; objectivity requires that a journalist do exactly that: treat factually false statements as false. “Objectivity” is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a “lie,” but when they refuse to do so, when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they’re viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions. The very idea that a journalist is engaged in “opinion-making” or is “taking sides” by calling a lie a “lie” is ludicrous; the only “side” such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth. It’s when a journalist fails to identify a false statement as such that they are “taking sides” — they’re siding with those in power by deceitfully depicting their demonstrably false statements as something other than lies.

This warped reasoning is one of the prime diseases plaguing establishment political journalism in the U.S. Most establishment journalists are perfectly willing to use the word “lie” for powerless, demonized or marginalized people, but they genuinely believe that it is an improper breach of journalistic objectivity to point out when powerful political officials are lying. They adamantly believe that such an activity — which is a core purpose of political journalism — is outside the purview of their function.


That these establishment journalists believe that pointing out the lies of powerful political leaders is “not their role” — indeed, is a violation of the rules that govern what they do — explains a large part of the failings of both America’s media class and its political class. Ironically, David Gregory is ultimately right that doing this is “not his role”; he’s not paid by NBC News and its owners to alert the American citizenry to lies told by the U.S. Government (i.e., he’s not paid to be an adversarial journalist). He’s there to do the opposite: to vest those lies with respect and depict them as reasonable statements to be subjectively considered along with the truth. But it’s in these moments when they are so candid about what their actual role is — or when they attack people like Cooper for the rare commission of actual journalism — that they are at their most (unintentionally) informative.


Had Anderson Cooper used such harsh language to describe the statements of someone universally despised in American mainstream political circles (an American Enemy — such as, say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez), it would likely have gone unnoticed. But here, Cooper used such language to condemn one of America’s closest and most cherished allies, and it was thus gently deemed a departure from journalistic propriety. But had Cooper said such things about a leading American political official, then a true journalistic scandal would have erupted. Declaring the statements of an American political leader to be a lie is one of the most rigidly enforced taboos in American journalism. That this hallmark of real journalism is strictly prohibited — “It’s not our role,” explained the Meet the Press host — tells one all there is to know about the function which most establishment journalists fulfill.

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For a related story, I recommend this excellent piece from Dan Hind on what is going wrong with English (and global corporate) media, and what we need to do to help fix it.

If we believe that the media’s fundamental purpose is to keep citizens acquainted with the broad outlines of reality, then the case for reform becomes overwhelming. No one who thinks about it for a moment can believe that the media are performing this role. In matters of peace and war and economic management - the core concerns of a responsible citizenry – journalists and editors have failed. And the fact that they have largely ignored or misrepresented their failures is testament to the power of media institutions to control debate - not their fitness to do so.


Given the constitutional significance of the media - the fact that democracy itself depends on adequate information – we need nothing short of a constitutional change in the way we gather and disseminate that information. At present, the owners and managers of media companies make decisions about what is investigated - and about how much prominence the results of investigation are given. This close control of journalistic curiosity – the ability of a relative handful of individuals to fund some inquiries and to discourage others – shapes the store of information upon which we all draw when we try to piece together an understanding of the world.

The fact that their decisions are rarely discussed in public means that we who depend on them only dimly appreciate the extent of our dependence. This is not a criticism of individuals or a call on them to try harder. The matrix of incentives in which they operate all but ensures that journalists and editors cannot, at present, tell the truth - when doing so threatens powerful interests.

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